Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.
January 18, 2007
DORIS MEISSNER: We are today on the record, and this is also a national -- and as I understand it international -- teleconference, so there will be people participating not only who are here in the audience, but possibly some questions from cyberspace. And so we'll go forward on that and on those grounds.
Now, my name is Doris Meissner and I'm moderating this panel today. I'm also probably going to participate to some extent because of the work that all three of us have done together over the course of about the last 18 months. The partners in this triad are Spencer Abraham and Lee Hamilton, who served as co-chairs of the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America's Future, which is a task force that was convened by the Migration Policy Institute with cooperation from the Wilson Center and the Manhattan Institute, and consisted of about 25 leaders -- national leaders -- of constituency and interested groups in the immigration debate -- immigration policy experts, public policy experts and elected officials, both current and former.
And we produced a report which is available for you in the lobby. It looks like this. And we're going to be speaking about some of the things that went into it today.
Now, you know Spencer Abraham as the former secretary of Energy in the first term of this administration, and prior to that as the chair of the immigration subcommittee in the Senate when he served as a senator from Michigan.
You know Lee Hamilton as the president of the Wilson Center, a former congressman from Indiana. And you also know him for having decided to choose this as the "easy" issue between 9/11 and Iraq, except that that didn't turn out to be the case.
So we have been working together, as I said, on this endeavor for quite some while. And so we're going to go through a series of Qs and As here, and then at about 1:00 we'll open for questions and comments from the audience.
First thing that I want to pose to each of you is to talk a little bit from your individual experiences in this issue and with this task force about what you think is new or unique about the work that we did here.
Want to start that? Sure.
SPENCER ABRAHAM: Sure, thanks.
First of all, thank you all for coming today. We worked very hard in this task force to try to present for consideration a document that was designed to look at not just one element of immigration or one particular problem with immigration facing America, but rather to try to take a comprehensive look, to try to present an approach that could be looked at to address, in a broad sense, the entire spectrum of immigration issues. And I think that may be the thing about the task force effort that is if not totally unique, certainly important and unique at this moment. I think it offers, you know, a chance to look at the puzzle and the challenges in a full sweep, and I think appreciates at the very outset that only by addressing these challenges in a comprehensive fashion are we likely to be successful in a long-term sense in trying to both accommodate the issues of concern to the American people as well as to address the aspirations of people who wish to come to America. And so I think that may be the element that was the most significant and perhaps the most unique about what we did. It really did bring together a very disparate set of people from different perspectives to try to find some ideas that they could all agree would really significantly move ahead the immigration policies of this country.
LEE HAMILTON: Thank you, Doris. It's a pleasure to be with Spencer and to have worked with him on this report. And of course, Doris was the driver behind it all and did a superb job.
Spencer is absolutely right, of course; the comprehensiveness of the report is its chief feature. Immigration has a lot of moving parts to it, and it's tempting and easy to pick out one part of it and say, okay, we're going to go after this and deal with that, ignoring everything else. But I don't think it works that way, and we see all of these parts of immigration coming together. We'll get into that, I'm sure, more.
In addition to the comprehensiveness, I think I would say that this report is driven by concern for the national interest. Kind of an unusual perspective, perhaps, to the question of immigration, but we really tried to ask ourselves: How important is immigration to this country? And the answer we gave was it's enormously important. Indeed, our future depends on it.
The economists tell us that we don't have enough people in this country to fill the jobs that we're -- coming available. And the only area that we're going to get people to fill our jobs in the future is from the immigration flood. We're all getting older, particularly some of us in this audience, including me. And you need the vitality of the immigrants coming into the country. So we tried to look at everything in terms of the national interest of the United States.
It was a bipartisan effort. Even though these issues generated a lot of partisan conflict on the Hill, other places, we really didn't encounter that in the study, and we came up with a bipartisan report.
So I think it's a very valuable study. We may not have gotten everything right. It's a complicated topic. But I think it's a solid study, and surely it would be one of the documents that you would want to refer to if you're going to be tackling the immigration question.
MEISSNER: One of the things that is constantly talked about in the debate today is that we have a broken system. And that, of course, was one of the issues that we looked at very carefully as we started our discussions among the members of the task force.
Brokenness. What's broken? What does broken mean? What -- talk a little bit about where this report and where the people that discuss this report saw the brokenness. What -- how deeply -- how much trouble are we really in?
ABRAHAM: Well, I think we recognize several things as being paramount in terms of the challenges that are existent today. I think first, the obvious challenge: there's 12-million-plus unauthorized people in this country. And the notion that somehow you can simply ignore that or that somehow or other you can write a law that makes those 12 million people depart the country to us is very unrealistic; impossible, really.
So we have to -- we have to address that. We have a system whereby people seeking to become legal residents of the United States wait in lines for time frames that are almost impossibly long and then become frustrated when they see other people who circumvent the process. But the process is broken.
We have people who are frustrated when they see the -- on the other side of the equation the need for important skilled positions to be filled unfillable through legal means because the backlogs are too great or the category in which the legal workers can come in -- the skilled workers can come in -- are too -- are too small.
And then, you know, you have in addition -- in addition to all of those challenges, the sort of social challenges of accommodating large numbers of people in the country; of really the whole assimilation set of issues we thought were important to address, and perhaps haven't been effectively addressed, of how you deal with the issues that relate to language and opportunity, how you relate to the problems that so many localities and cities undertake to try to address the costs of -- the social services costs of people here in large numbers.
So we felt we had to look at all of those because each of those presented a challenge. And we also had the challenge that you now have people at the local and state level thinking they should begin to write their own immigration policies, almost certainly therefore creating complications from the standpoint of a national perspective.
MEISSNER: Lee, what was broken, from your standpoint?
HAMILTON: You know, if you talk to the man or woman on the street in Indiana, the thing that's broken is we don't have secure borders. And that deeply concerns them. That's part of the problem. We just don't have control of our borders.
Beyond that, though, the system is not meeting our economic needs in the country. When we deal with the system -- if Congress debates it -- I used to get terribly frustrated on this -- they'd always pick out some little problem. What they'd end up doing, almost invariably -- they take up immigration, Spencer, what, every 10 years or so, not often. And they debate it for a long time, and then they look at one little bit of the problem -- let's build a fence over here, or let's create another category over here, when we already have 70 categories. Is that about right?
HAMILTON: We got 70 categories. And so they create another category.
You got a system that doesn't help families -- it's inhumane -- to bring the families together. Doesn't meet our economic aids.
It is just a managerial mess. The system is overburdened everywhere you look. You don't have any regulatory mechanism in it. Nobody pays any attention to the administration of immigration, except a few people -- (chuckling) -- like Doris did when she was commissioner, and some very good people working on it, but overwhelmed.
So everywhere you look, you're impressed by this system. It's just not working at all. And that's why we came to the conclusion you need some kind of comprehensive reform.
Chaotic, complex. The system can be manipulated. All of you are acquainted with some immigration lawyers. (Chuckling.) Their whole business is trying to find ways -- a crack in the immigration laws somewhere. They spend hours. They get very great expertise on these matters.
Not simple. It needs redesign. It's needed. So we just took off from that point.
MEISSNER: Well, okay. So in terms of trying to build a different system or a new system that would at least respond to some of those problems, lay out some of the critical ideas that drove the thinking of the task force in its discussions and that you would hope would be in the minds of policymakers and the public in the debate that is under way.
ABRAHAM: Well, Lee alluded to one of them, and that was that immigration is in the nation's best interest. From the standpoint of our future, of -- the ability to grow the economy of this country is certainly going to depend on our ability to have a workforce capable of supporting the 21st-century economy, a global economy that we now find ourselves in.
The other thing, I think, that drove us was the realization that you can -- that the enactment of some of the laws that have been proposed and some that have already been in the past enacted just failed to appreciate two things: that economic forces and human aspiration are going to affect the immigration issues far more than anything that legislators can do. It seems to me that the human aspiration to have opportunities, to pursue them, to find a place where one's talent can be fully implemented or utilized and where they can -- where people can succeed will cause people to want to come to the United States, and the need of the economy of this country to -- you know, to have the workforce that helps it to grow are going to also be compelling. And I think we felt that you had to have a system that reconciled not just the interests of the country in secure borders but also the economic interests of the country and the aspirations of people who want to come here and try to find a better approach to allowing that to happen, consistent with what people would regard as fair and just legal rules.
MEISSNER: Right, and as I remember, you were particularly interested in the competitive -- U.S. competitiveness aspects of this --
MEISSNER: -- and how high-skilled immigration is going to become more and more of an international -- tight international market and --
ABRAHAM: Yeah, the numbers -- I mean, people in this audience are quite sophisticated, and you all know some of these statistics that relate to the amount of graduate students in this country versus others in some of the areas of science and engineering and math, and what that conceivably means.
There was a time, obviously, when America was the place that graduate students worldwide wanted to come for school. There was a little competition and a little desire on the part of home countries to keep the talent or other countries to try to recruit it. That's changed, and for a lot of reasons, both political as well as competitive ones. But all of that changes the competitive mix for the United States, and where we once I think enjoyed a huge advantage, we no longer have as big as an advantage. And if we have laws that work directly contrary to that, discouraging graduate students from wanting to come here because they have to leave when they finish their work or anything along that lines, I think it has a big impact.
You know, I can remember in my job as Energy secretary going to China and speaking at a graduate -- engineering graduate school program at Ching-Hwa University and having -- I mean, the sort of -- if I made this appearance at any graduate program in the United States, I think there would have been 27 people in the audience and some would have been there, you know, grudgingly. And this was a room of about 400 top students with tremendous interest and a terrific set of questions. And I was thinking, you know, this is a whole different world, and we as a country need to be as prepared as possible to compete in it, and that means that we have to really build or recruit that -- you know, that talent that will allow us to do so.
MEISSNER: On the big idea, what are you thinking?
HAMILTON: Well, the really big idea I've already mentioned, I think. We asked ourselves a question of what's the American national interest on immigration, and we concluded, of course, that immigration is essential to the national interest of the United States and that it has to be well-managed. But I think there are some other ideas that were critical.
Number one is you got to simplify the process. These number of categories we got are just an outright absurdity, add enormous complexity to the whole thing. So you got to simplify it. And we did that by saying we got three streams of immigration: temporary, provisional -- kind of a new concept -- and permanent. So simplification was one idea.
Second idea was you got to develop some kind of capacity to manage the system. We've got to pay more attention to simple administration -- not so simple, I guess -- management of this whole thing. So we recommend a new idea -- I think it's new -- and that's a standing commission on immigration and labor markets, operating somewhat like the Census Bureau perhaps, somewhat like the Federal Reserve. There's an enormous amount of data that is being produced now by scholars across the country on immigration. That data shifts; it changes. And the needs of the country change, and you've got to have a system that has flexibility in it that we can manage. And so this commission would keep track of all this data, make regular recommendations to the Congress, and instead of the Congress addressing the issue every 10 years, they would address it every two years with scientific data, the best data we can get, on immigration. Setting an immigration level at a certain amount, they'd recommend that to the Congress. The commission would not take away power from the Congress, but it would make recommendations to the Congress based on the best data available, and a lot of it now is being accumulated. We recommended a White House coordinator. Immigration is spread all over this government one way or the other. A lot of people have their finger in the pie. You don't get integration, you don't get coordination. You do not really have a good way of managing this system, and we try to address that.
Another idea that drove it was you've got to have enforceable rules. And this comes down to this delicate question of employer verification as being a key to the enforcement of immigration. The employer has to be able to rely on good data, and we make some recommendations with regard to that, with regard to the person coming into the place of business for employment. But you've got to have a system of enforcing the law, which we really don't have today. And the only way you're going to do it -- because, as Spence has said, so much of the immigration is now driven by economic factors -- is to have employer verification. But you've got to understand the employer's have got a very tough problem here, and you've got to give him or her the tools that he or she can be assured that the person in front of them is who he or she says they are and has the documentation to show it.
Another thing we addressed -- this doesn't come up very much in the immigration debate, but it should -- and that's the protection of the workers. We really don't have a very good system of protecting these workers. They come in here, they're stuck with one employer. It's very hard for them to change from one employer to the other. There is no real effective system of employee protection, and that ought to be, in a humane country, a very important part of our immigration law.
Then there's the whole question of integration of immigrants that I think drove a lot of our concerns. From my perspective on this, this was largely a local and state matter. I have a daughter who works in a small community in Indiana. She heads up a commission in the town. Have a lot of Hispanics flowing into the town for a lot of different reasons. They've set up a commission to deal with the integration of the immigrants into the community. Lots of communities are doing that now. It has to be done. Some communities are doing a very good job; some not doing anything at all. Some states doing good, some states not doing much at all.
But I don't know that the federal government can do all that much here. Maybe give best practices and that sort of thing. But we certainly need a campaign going to encourage communities, states, to find ways and means of integrating these people into our society.
And the other thing, the final point I'd make relates to the border itself. We have to develop better means of making our borders safer and more secure. That's not easy either. It's going to take a lot of technology, it's going to take some management systems. But it's an important part of immigration because, you know, I walk into the 7-11 near my home, and it's early in the morning. You got 15, 20 people standing around getting breakfast there. I'm the only guy in the place speaks English, and they're all speaking Spanish. If another white male like myself comes in, I can just see what they're thinking about: How did these people get into this country? What are they doing here? There's a suspicion that everybody that's a little different from a white female or white male came into the country illegally. So we got to get a little better hold of our borders than we do. And, of course, terrorism remains very much on our minds in this country, and that means security at the border.
So, excuse me for being a little lengthy there, but I think there are a lot of ideas that drove this report.
MEISSNER: Let me pick up on a couple of them in terms of what might happen politically or what might shift things with some new ideas in a slightly different direction.
One of them that you mentioned, Lee, was the idea that we have that our visa system needs to be really redesigned along the lines of three different streams of immigration, which we say are temporary immigration, provisional immigration, and permanent immigration.
And this idea of provisional immigration is an idea that is not currently incorporated in our thinking about immigration. It's really a bridge idea that says that people come here for purely temporary reasons, that's quite understandable; they come for purely permanent reasons, that's always been the case. But we now are in an economy and we now are in circumstances globally where there's a lot of movement back and forth, and most of that is based on work and on job opportunities that are ongoing in the economy, they are not simply spot things for two or three months.
So we have this idea of provisional visas which would be three-year visas which would be able to be renewed and could ultimately lead to permanent immigration if people are properly employed, but could also be periodic. And we think that this is a better way of dealing with labor market needs and controlling and regulating flows than the idea of a guest worker program that would simply be added to this rather dysfunctional system that we've been talking about.
Why -- Spence, talk a little bit about why did we come to the view, what would be attractive about a redesigned visa system as compared to simply an add-on in the way that the president is talking about, and others in the Congress.
ABRAHAM: You know, Lee has kind of hit on this point two or three times. But if you have as many categories as currently exist, and think the solution is to add additional categories rather than to contract, I think you will get it wrong. At the end of the day it just adds more complication to a process that's already well beyond complicated. So I think we felt that was the first thing, the notion.
Second, we thought that a realistic approach to the employment-based immigration in this country -- and I would say this. I mean, I don't think we had an official position on this, but I think it was certainly the plurality of participants in our task force felt that employment more than ever before should be the driver in terms of the policies and approach taken, as opposed to in the past it was either principally family or primarily family-based immigration.
And we thought that if you want to take a realistic approach, that the realistic approach was to take employment-based immigration and subdivide it three ways -- into people who are in search of permanent legal status, permanent employment; people who are clearly, as Doris said, in a short-term category; and people who would be in neither of the above but who would want a pathway towards the opportunity to achieve permanent legal status, and that that pathway made sense.
And that the best way to -- in the job market today, in the workplace settings of today, the best way to do that was through a provisional designation, a provisional visa that would give people both the time to essentially accomplish their goal of finding the employment they sought, of meeting certain standards along the way, and then to have that reconsidered with the ultimate opportunity to transition to a permanent status if that made sense and if certain achievements had taken place during that time frame. Again, an effort to try to reduce the complexities and to more realistically address what goes on in the world today.
HAMILTON: Just to pick up on what Spencer said, look at this from the standpoint of an employer. Employers have all different kinds of needs. Someday they made need the nuclear physicist. They also need somebody to sweep out the hall. And both jobs can be very important. They may want a person to come in and work for a couple or three months. They may want them to come in for a year. They may want them to come in permanently. You've got to have a system that is flexible to meet the needs that the employers have.
And employers have needs. Not only do they have needs at any one time, but those needs are changing all the time as the marketplace changes. And so you have to have a system that has some flexibility. We have great rigidity in the system today. The only way you can get it to move is to throw another category in there, and that's nuts, just plain nuts in the way to handle the system. So we push the idea of flexibility.
And it's critically important because if the employers cannot meet their needs for employees, they're not going to be productive. The national economic picture will change, and not to the good, not positively. So we've got to understand the link here. You not only want the employers to prosper, but you want the country to prosper as well.
MEISSNER: I think that this point on flexibility really is absolutely essential because it also goes to the politics that surround this issue and the fact that the absence of flexibility or the rigidity that is in the statute contributes very much to the spinning up of this issue because the frustration builds and builds and builds until it's critical for the Congress to act, and, in that kind of an atmosphere, almost impossible for the congress to act in a thoughtful way. So you have this really negative paradox.
And that is what the standing commission idea is partly meant to address. We need to create some safety valves in the system that both give us better information so that we know better what we're talking about when decisions are made and can work off of evidence and information more than we do. This will always be an emotion-laden issue, but nonetheless, information and evidence can help. And you also would then have a way of giving the Congress information that allows it to make adjustments that are more -- what shall we say -- that are more fine-tuned as compared to only every 10 or 15 years having a real explosive kind of debate that then tends to lead to answers that are not really suited to solving the problem.
So when we talk about comprehensive in this report, we're really talking about comprehensive in a very different way from the way it's been used in the congressional debate. In the congressional debate, "comprehensive" has been a word to describe a comprehensive package of measures to respond to illegal immigration.
What we are saying when we're saying "comprehensive" is you really need to look at this system as a system. Legal and illegal immigration are interconnected, they are rooted in the economy, they are rooted in laws of supply and demand, overriding all other trends and forces right now, and you need a different paradigm, really.
My own sense of this is that although one likes to think -- or we tend in a democracy to do best with incremental change, sometimes that's really not possible. And on this issue, I think we have to think about in the way that we thought about, say, welfare reform in the '90s, which is that we really just need to have a redesign. We need to have a different set of assumptions and mechanisms for running the system. So that's what we hope this has contributed to -- we hope this contributes to thinking about those sorts of things and can make some inroads in pushing the debate in those directions.
So with that, we're going to open to questions and comments, and I am to tell you not to say anything until the microphone reaches you. So I saw -- well, I saw a hand in the back first off, and then here and here. Okay. I can remember them all. Okay.
QUESTIONER: Yuri Sigov of Business People magazine. My question is to Mr. Spencer about so-called students immigration. The United States is one of the countries where less and less students from abroad are coming, and one of the reasons that in neighboring Canada, in U.K. and Australia, students, while studying and getting master's degree by the time when they finish actually their studies, they get already citizenship, a passport and the possibility to stay in the country to get a job. Is there any idea in the Congress or within the American government to work something like this within the United States? Because the problem for many foreign students -- they would like to stay here, especially from poor countries -- they have relatively good, you know, level of knowledge of different -- (inaudible) -- but they have no opportunities.
ABRAHAM: Well, I think I kind of alluded to that in my comments earlier. And I think we more or less addressed that in the report by recommending steps would be taken along the lines you've outlined, that we really -- why you want to, first of all, just as a matter of economics, subsidize in whole or part the educations of talented people from other parts of the world who want to come to the United States, who want to be in the United States and want to work in the United States, and then after the education process ends have a philosophy that essentially causes them to have to leave, not as a matter of their choice but as a matter of a mandate.
So essentially, that's what we've recommended is that there ought to be a pathway forward from that attainment of a graduate degree into the job market and ultimately, depending on the direction they might take, into the opportunity to be a legal -- to have legal permanent status after that graduation.
This is the world we're in. I mean, and some may not appreciate it yet or some may not want to appreciate it, but it's a -- in the kind of economies that the world has today, the fight to attract the talented, skilled people is going to become evermore important -- not that there won't be a market for people with different kinds of skills. But certainly the notion that -- we felt that the notion that the system we have today works is a mistake and causes us to be less competitive, and, frankly, just as kind of counterintuitive at its essence.
MEISSNER: There on the aisle -- or two on the aisle.
QUESTIONER: My name's David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board. Here's a brief question for all three of you, perhaps. But I should take just a second to motivate it.
The question is, might the provisional track that you've described over time supplant the temporary short-term immigration track? And the reason I ask the question is because from an economic perspective, there's a big difference with short-term temporary guest workers. And it's a difference you never hear about in the debate, and it's this: if a short-term temporary guest worker can accept a wage that is lower than what he or she would need if that person had to face retirement in this country or raise a family in this country; but as soon as you talk about an immigrant, legal or illegal, who is even just thinking about making a life here, then that person is in exactly the same position as anybody on the margins of the labor market in this country -- you know, native who might be looking for work.
So what I'm wondering is whether this provisional track actually actually might get more immigrants to consider staying here, and over time might wean us from the temporary track, where there are a lot of people coming in for very brief periods of time and who are arguably in a position to underbid someone who lives here.
HAMILTON: Well, my reaction to that is that, you know, these categories are going to be used and manipulated by people for their own advantage. And over time, they're going to change, just as the categories we have now change over time. But you begin with these three categories, and you -- if you have a system that reexamines your flow every couple, three years, you can correct problems that occur.
I think the answer to your question may very well be yes. But there are a number of people who come into the country today that are clearly temporary. The tourist, I guess, is the best example, but there are a lot of people who come in for very temporary reasons.
What's happened under the current system is that temporary is the way to become permanent. The categories have gotten all skewed. You get a person in here on a temporary basis, and then you begin to manipulate the system in order to make it permanent. So that's going to continue to occur.
But it does seem to me that these three streams we've identified are the general purposes for which people come in, and would be the right way to redesign the system. You'd have to keep examining it all the way through.
Doris, you may want to add to that. You're the one who knows a lot about divisional --
MEISSNER: Well, the difficulty here is that lots of people want to ask questions.
MEISSNER: And so I thought I would just go to some others in the audience and maybe we'll come up with some different ways.
That person back on the aisle. Yes, you.
QUESTIONER: My name is Mike Haltzel. I'm from the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
I wonder if you can go into more detail about the assimilation of immigrants who intend, eventually, to become U.S. citizens. Secretary Abraham alluded to it at the beginning of his talk. Specifically, did you address the question of language -- English as a national language or bilinguality, Spanish-English, or multilinguality.
And secondly, civic education -- the French government, just as one example, has undertaken a program to educate imams on French culture and civics. Did you go into any of these issues at all?
ABRAHAM: Well, I think we did on the language, with regard to the provisional -- as I remember, the way we structured it is that one of the attainments during the provisional visa period would be, you know, a language attainment. We didn't address the question of English as a national language per se, but we did feel that that was a part of the process that should take place.
We also, I think, tried to, I think -- I mean, I think we tried to be realistic about how much at a national level you could do from that standpoint -- and I think Doris sort of touched on this before -- of trying to provide maybe some ideas or some leadership. But obviously, a lot of this is going to end up being kind of a local challenge. But I think that there could be some -- you know, with the establishment of the commission, with the establishment of more of a focus on this, there could be some guidance.
I don't know if Doris said there would be other --
HAMILTON: The really controversial item in our report is the path to legal residency. That raises a so-called "amnesty problem," and we say there should be a path to legal residency. And we spell out what that path ought to include -- English language is one, payment of any fines would be another, job might be another, security check would be another. So you can make kind of a basic list of things that people ought to do. And I don't think we recommended that if they meet those things, they move to the head of the line, but they have to meet those things in order to get into the line.
Now I might -- you've got 12 million, maybe 13 million of these people in this country. And the politicians, frankly, are very hesitant to address this because it's a very tough problem. And yet, we simply don't have the means to deport, to arrest, 12 million people. Nobody thinks that we're about to put up the resources to do that. And furthermore, if you did it, you would create horrendous disruptions in families -- children would be U.S. citizens, parents not, and so forth; and in communities.
So the path to citizenship is a very crucial part of this report, also I guess quite controversial. But it certainly addresses the -- Mike, the ideas that you're presenting here. Yeah, it includes some civic education as well.
MEISSNER: And I think overall, as Lee said at the outset, we have a whole section devoted to what we call immigrant integration. And we say immigrant integration is very much being neglected in our policy-making today; that it needs to be a central feature of immigration policy in an era of large-scale immigration, which is what we are living in. And although, you know, we would not remake the Americanization movement at the turn of the century to the last large-scale immigration, there are things that are appropriate today, language being the single -- English language capability being the single-most important attribute of success and upward mobility in this society. So we're very insistent on those points.
And we actually also say that from an immigrant integration standpoint, No Child Left Behind is one of the best policies that the country has because it does force attention on this problem among younger -- the children of immigrants.
Let's see, on this side. Do you still have a question? Okay.
QUESTIONER: My question, I have not read this report, so I don't have a chance to absorb its wisdom. But tell me, if you don't address the issue first, the core center of immigration are the 12 million, 13 million, 14 million illegals in this country, how on earth can you deal with immigration as a whole? That is the first issue you must address, though it is controversial and it's toxic in many ways. But if you can't solve that, all else is like tracings on dry leaves in the wind.
MEISSNER: Well, you've been in these wars, Spence, what would you say?
ABRAHAM: Well, I think it has to be -- I said before I think that a comprehensive approach is required, and that means addressing, you know, the status and the 12 million unauthorized people as a first and foremost element of that approach.
I think we feel it's just completely, as Lee indicated, unrealistic to think that there's going to be some kind of law that is going to identify and remove people who are unauthorized in this country today. So the question becomes, you know, what is the alternative? How do you deal with that? And I think that we've tried to do so in the way we've laid out this concept of pathways forward. And for those who are unauthorized, if they are identified or would identify themselves, I think there's a methodology which we've outlined here to -- you know, to, in the context of their current situation, allow them to ultimately obtain a status that would permit them to be permanent.
I don't think there's just a realistic alternative to that.
But the fact is when we passed the immigration bills in 1986 and 1995, we said, okay, there's this large number of people here today, and if we pass this new bill, which adds more border patrols and more enforcement and tougher sanctions, that will be the end of this and we won't have people, you know, in the future in this category. Well, here we are 10 years later and there's 12 million people today in this category.
So you can't just -- I mean, you have to address the current population of unauthorized, but you also have to simultaneously revamp this entire system or you will just continue to have huge numbers of unauthorized people find their way here. I don't think the building of more perimeter fences and more border patrols is ever going to succeed, because as I said at the outset, you're trying to put a fence up that can stop both the economic forces at play and the human aspirational forces at play, and I don't think you can build the fence big enough to do that.
HAMILTON: One of the governors said, "Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." (Laughter.)
MEISSNER: And it was Janet Napolitano of Arizona, who's in a position to know. (Laughs.)
There are lots of hands on this side, so let me -- okay, right up here. Just a minute; you need a microphone.
QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt. In your comprehensive approach to the immigration issue, did the question of the 14th Amendment come up at all in your discussions? I ask that question because, as you know, that provision grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the United States, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, to be more precise, except for foreign diplomats. Many people consider that this is a powerful lure for illegal immigrants. And it certainly complicates the problem of how to deal with illegal immigration when people can come across the border, have children, those children become American citizens at birth, and then they constitute an argument for the illegal immigrants to remain in the United States.
The legislative and judicial history of the amendment has a much narrower focus. It was designed to repeal the Dred Scott decision so that blacks who had previously been slaves could vote. Republicans thought that if they didn't do that, everyone elected from the South after the Civil War would be a Democrat.
Anyway, is this an issue that should be looked at? Very few countries have such a provision. It could be changed if the legislative and judicial history of the amendment would lend itself to a reinterpretation whereby in order to acquire citizenship at birth, one parent would either have to be a citizen or a lawfully admitted alien. Did this issue come up?
HAMILTON: Well, I don't think we addressed it. Maybe we should have addressed it.
You have an interesting proposal. I had thought when you talked about the 14th Amendment you would think of a change in the Constitution, but you're suggesting that by judicial interpretation it could be changed. And I just don't know enough about it to address that, frankly. A constitutional amendment, I think, would probably not be feasible because of the majorities that are required to get it.
I don't have any doubt that it is a lure. I'm sure it's a lure, that provision, for people to come into the country illegally. But we did not address it. I don't recall we addressed it at all.
MEISSNER: No, we didn't address it. And I must say that I -- you know, the jury is out on the degree to which it really is or not. I mean, people cannot petition for their parents until they're 21 years of age. That was changed in the 1960s when in fact there did seem to be evidence of that kind of a problem. But there are a lot of lawyers here who know this issue very well. It's a very much of a legal issue.
I think in terms of social policy, my own view is that it is not the right way to resolve this problem. That the birthright citizenship, in fact, is one of the things that is positive for us as a country, that ultimately it allows for people who are here to be full members of the society. And as an immigrant nation, which we are going to continue to be, we need to retain that. That is not to say that we don't need to do something much more aggressive about illegal immigration, but I don't think that's the right way to attack it.
In the back.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Holly Wise. Thanks for your good work.
I was interested in the suggestions you're making about reforming the management of the process, cutting down the number of categories, which, as I understand it, largely has to do with the tenure of their status or their stay in the States. You must have struggled a lot with flavors of folks, if you will. And could you say a little bit more about, when you take that optic of national competitiveness, did you come out with specific recommendations that favor nannies over neurologists or which make some sort of recommendations about the kinds of skills that we would want to give preference to, given that there's excess demand for the spaces available, as it were?
HAMILTON: My view -- I think I understand the question. My view on it is that we've got to begin to look at this immigration phenomenon as a way to strengthen the country. And we are short now of a lot of people that we need to make this country work and more productive and more competitive and more entrepreneurial.
And so I think we have to look at immigration and from a very national perspective. What kind of people do we need in this country today to make this economy go?
And that may mean highly skilled people -- probably does, in many cases -- but it may mean -- if you're talking about life, it may mean a good plumber that we need.
So there are all kinds of people you need in the country to make it work. And we can't make this country -- or you can't drive a cab in D.C. without running into an Ethiopian somewhere. We are totally dependent on a handful of nationalities to run our cab system in this country, in this city. Well, if that's what we need, cab drivers, then -- and we can't produce them in the local economy, then we're going to have to import them. Immigration.
So you ask the question: What do you really need in the country? I usually address that question, say: Well, you need these high-energy physicists and so forth. I'm sure that's true. Computer experts. They tell me out on the West Coast -- Jack, you're familiar with all of this -- they can't run a lot of those businesses out there without Indian engineers and experts. Well, we need those people.
Now, one of the great attractions for this country, of course, are the institutions of higher education, and they're magnets drawing people to this country. It's a great strength of the country, and we need to take advantage of that and keep the people we really need.
I may say here there are real foreign policy problems that pop up here. Brain drain problem. We have real problems with a number of countries in the world today because they accuse us, not without some reason, of brain drain. We're taking all their talented people. Well, this becomes a kind of a national competition for talented people. But we have to protect our own interests.
MEISSNER: Here in the front.
QUESTIONER: Arnaud De Borchgrave, CSIS. Lee, when I became a citizen in 1951, there was a fairly rigorous test that was required to become a citizen. When was that dropped and why was it dropped?
HAMILTON: I don't know the answer to that. It's not too rigorous now, is it?
MEISSNER: Well --
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
HAMILTON: (Off mike.)
MEISSNER: This is -- I think it depends on -- you know, depends on what you call rigorous, I mean. But the critical qualification is English language speaking ability, but then there is the civics test. And the civics test or the knowledge of, you know, American government is a test that's been in dispute for quite some while. And the government is now piloting a new test in order to try to have a more effective assessment of people's knowledge of civics and government.
But this is an area that is in huge dispute, and actually trying to determine what people should be tested for and what are the proper testing standards and all of that sort of thing has really tied the government up for -- we started this when I was at INS in the late '90s, and it's only now come out in a new test. So you know, as I say, there is an effort to make a change, but it's an area that even professional test takers do not agree on in terms of how do you measure it.
HAMILTON: Was it at one time a lot more strict than it is now?
MEISSNER: Not really. It's never been strict.
I mean, it may have been in your particular case. This is one of those -- (laughter) -- you may have gotten an ornery examiner that day. (Laughter.)
But this has always been very subjective. I mean, the English language has been one thing, but it's generally been extremely subjective.
Okay. I've been on this side. Let's go to this side. How about here in the middle?
QUESTIONER: Bill Hawley. I have to assume that the overly restrictive quotas and the system that is broke reflects very strong anxieties on the part of some portions of the political spectrum in the U.S., particularly, perhaps, organized labor -- concerns about what might be viewed as an overly zero-sum approach to job creation and job sensitivities and so forth.
I'm wondering, though, whether in your contacts and in your studies you sense that there has been -- that there is under way any kind of a change in appreciation of the competitiveness issues and of the reasons for moving forward to make it more possible for an expansion of the legal immigration current, or whether there is still just a totally rock-solid defensive approach to that.
ABRAHAM: I don't know that it's totally changed in the time since I first got active on these issues. I mean, in the period that I chaired the subcommittee, we elevated the number of high-tech worker visas against the backdrop of the exploding IT industry and the pretty obvious, you know, shortfall of workers. And even as that was happening, we're inundated with claims that there was somehow this large number of unemployed computer science community members who were, you know, being brushed aside so that somehow there'd be a lower wage replacement. You know, it was pretty obvious, of course, in that area that it was only a matter of time before the entire -- the job would just move to where the worker was, rather than the workers coming, you know, to where the job was because of the nature of that industry. And others now are following.
But I still think there is some concern about that. I think what we tried to do in the context of the Standing Commission was to put in place a mechanism whereby these kinds of things could be better analyzed and more frequently analyzed in order to, you know, maybe have a more current and accurate reading of the needs. I don't think that will be perfect. It's hard to imagine, you know, you could have a centralized system that can determine job -- or, you know, employment needs that precisely. But it's certainly more likely to succeed than a system which right now is highly arbitrary. When we passed the higher numbers of H1-B worker visas, we put a sunset date on it. The sunset date of that increase expired. We now have, as most of you know, a collapse back to the numbers that existed before any increases took place, back, I think, to 60,000 or so, who are almost all taken on the very first day of the fiscal year in the current situation because of the demand.
So that system, to me, doesn't really work. We think that what we're proposing here has a more realistic approach. It won't be perfect, but certainly better than a situation that rises and falls with the movement of legislation every decade through Congress, or even longer.
HAMILTON: If you look at the bills in the Congress last year, I think the competitiveness idea underlay the guest worker argument; in other words, we got to create more categories to bring in certain kinds of workers. The premise underlying that was really we need certain kinds of workers to maintain competitiveness.
If you look at the House bill, that had very little economic undergirdings. There it was a question of building the fence, keeping them out, and it was not economically motivated at all.
So I think yes, indeed, there's a growing recognition. We don't think that the guest worker provision that the Senate favored is the way to go because it just adds complexity and several more categories. We think our system is better. But it does certainly try to respond to the competitiveness concern in the country.
MEISSNER: We've come to the end of our time, I'm afraid. And I just want to acknowledge a question that came in from somebody listening, but we answered the question in the course of comments that were already being made, so I didn't pose it specifically.
I'd like to just close very quickly with one final question because both of our co-chairs here are seasoned lawmakers and observers of public policy. Give us your quick prognostication here. Is the Congress going to be able to deal with this this session?
HAMILTON: Well, I'm a little more optimistic than I would have been, I guess, a few weeks or months back. I think that the president is clearly interested in comprehensive reform, and he was forced away from that really by the Republicans in the House. But his instincts on it are for comprehensive reform. If you look at the voting patterns on the 100-day -- or the 100-hour opening of the Congress, what strikes all of us is that a large number of Republicans are voting for some of the bills.
Now, I also believe that immigration is a question where the president and leaders in the Congress really think there is an opportunity to make some progress in the next couple of years. The number of areas where that's possible are fairly limited, but everybody wants to come out with some kind of a record, and I think immigration may rise up. So I hope I'm not being Pollyannish, but it seems to me some of the forces are coming into line that would enhance the possibility of immigration reform being enacted.
ABRAHAM: I share that view.
I think, you know, in the Senate we saw in the discussions that happened last year that there was, I think, a clear majority and I think probably over 60 votes in the same direction that the president would like to move. And maybe there would be some differences, but not many.
And my sense is is in the House now you have, you know, a similar number that would be in position to go in that direction as well.
So I am optimistic, but this is the sort of thing there are so many moving parts to it, though, it would be very -- obviously when you work on a report like this, you get a fuller appreciation of how many aspects need to be addressed. It may not be possible to address all of them, but I do think a comprehensive bill is feasible in this Congress.
MEISSNER: Well, stay tuned. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
(C) COPYRIGHT 2007, FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., 1000 VERMONT AVE.
NW; 5TH FLOOR; WASHINGTON, DC - 20005, USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ANY REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION IS EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED.
UNAUTHORIZED REPRODUCTION, REDISTRIBUTION OR RETRANSMISSION CONSTITUTES A MISAPPROPRIATION UNDER APPLICABLE UNFAIR COMPETITION LAW, AND FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. RESERVES THE RIGHT TO PURSUE ALL REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO IT IN RESPECT TO SUCH MISAPPROPRIATION.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC. IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. NO COPYRIGHT IS CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO FNS, PLEASE CALL JACK GRAEME AT 202-347-1400.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.